Last year we theorized that the design of a gearshift lever was what caused a 49-year-old mother to move her car directly into the path of an oncoming train. Now it looks like another unusual interface design from a different vehicle manufacturer may have contributed to another death.
Over the weekend Anton Yelchin, the 27-year-old actor known for playing Chekov in the recent Star Trek movies, was killed in what was referred to as "a freak accident" in his Los Angeles driveway. But was it really "freak?" It seems to us that lousy design may have played a role.
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Yelchin was found crushed between his car, a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the security gate at the end of his driveway. It appears that Yelchin had exited his car and walked behind it, perhaps to close the gate, and apparently believed the transmission was in "Park." Instead it appears it was actually in "Reverse" or "Neutral" and the car rolled down his steep driveway, killing him.
This brings us to the design of the 2014-2015 Grand Cherokee's shifter:
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The manufacturer calls it the "Monostable" shifter, and it seems to us that it fails to achieve its most basic purpose, which is to allow the driver to easily change gears and know precisely which gear it's in. Look at the freaking instructions for how to use this thing:
Are you kidding me? As you can see in the video, the shifter automatically returns to the center position after each change is made. The driver must check the letters atop the shifter or on the dashboard to see what gear it's in. In contrast, the more traditional automatic shifter design is to move the lever to a particular angle, where it remains. Remaining in the position where you last manipulated it to is, we think, a better design for enforcing in the user's mind what gear you're in.
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The Monostable shifter does not appear to offer any performance advantage or improvement to the UI that we can see. Perhaps it's easier to manufacture. Nevertheless parent company Fiat Chrysler has tacitly admitted that the design is a failure, as they recently recalled 1.1-million vehicles featuring the shifter.
The recall was conducted because while the unfortunate Yelchin was the first reported fatality, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation has linked the design of the Monostable shifter to 121 accidents and 41 injuries as of April of this year. As Autoweek reports,
The [Monostable] issue itself is not a fault of engineering but rather design, as the shifter returns to the default center position without giving the driver sufficient feedback as to the selected gear.
As a result, a number of owners have exited their vehicles thinking that they had put the vehicle into Park, while in reality it remained in Drive or Reverse position. The NHTSA has called the operation of the shifter "unintuitive" and had opened an investigation into the issue months ago.
Sadly, it appears Yelchin had not submitted his vehicle to the recall.